Landscape restoration in post-conflict Colombia: peace building regional development with global impacts

GLF 2017 Blog Competition
Catherine Gamba-Trimino

Thanks to a historic peace agreement signed with the FARC guerrilla in 2016 Colombia, the second most biodiverse country in the world, has entered into a new era, after more than 50 years of armed conflict. As people return to their lands, ex-combatants leave war, and the world looks to Colombia with optimism, post-conflict territories face development pressures that should be turned into opportunities. How to avoid falling in the biodiversity depletion trajectory that post-conflict countries generally take?

It was with these ideas in mind that in may 2017 I reached out to a Colombian colleague living in France, asking for collaboration in creating a reflection space for this important time in our country. We ended up co-organizing a successful Seminar on Peace and Biodiversity in Colombia, in Paris, focused in initiatives for the sustainable development of post-conflict territories. This Seminar convoked more than 100 people in two sessions, joining together representatives from NGOs, researchers, French diplomatic members, United Nation Agencies, bilateral banks and institutional Colombian actors. It was also labeled as part of the 2017 France-Colombia year and backed by 10 different partners, proving of the interest our new Colombia is raising. This blog entry shares some of my impressions on the Seminar by integrating them with my previous training in landscape approaches at Wageningen Centre, and with some of my field experiences in Colombia. It aims as well to keep raising attention to the Seminar topic, matter of pivotal importance for peace building, but also to advance the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals at a global level.

Conflict in Colombia paradoxically allowed for a forest expansion of at least 3% in the last decade, yet according to the Colombian Institute IDEAM last year 170,000 ha were already deforested. Rooted in an unequal resource access, conflict will not disappear until society as a whole comes together to discuss, plan and manage its landscape. Moreover, with a biodiversity rich country that offers multiple opportunities, Colombians are obliged to place biodiversity as the common concern entry point to discuss an integral development. Current land use types overlap and what this proves is the innate multi-functionality of our territory, where wilderness, collective lands, family farming plots, wetlands, cattle ranching areas, agroindustrial fields, mining and energy domains, cities and degraded places constitute the puzzle.

A few years ago I undertook an assessment expedition in the Colombian caribbean. Commissioned by a private-public donor the goal was to look out for opportunities to integrate native palm trees in productive systems. Originally holding dry forest ecosystems, the Colombian Caribbean is currently a human transformed landscape, where scattered remnants of this highly endangered biome persist. But it is also a territory where war took a heavy toll, with collective killings and thousands of displaced people that left their lands to escape from armed groups. As I traveled this area I witnessed dispute, several old fashion ways to cope with nature eradicating it, ignoring that biodiversity can in fact support productive activities, and that it is also a common resource, a fundamental need for me and my neighbor, an asset that must be collectively managed.

With an astonishing stocking rate of 0.4 cows per hectare extensive cattle ranchers, for example, invest time and resources fighting against trees in pastures, and yet it has been proved that well designed silvopastoral systems can be more productive as trees fix nitrogen, supplement livestock nutrition and provide timber. Moreover, in the Colombian Caribbean livelihood activities of some of the poorest depend on fruits and artisanal fibers coming from palms struggling to grow in these pastures. Species such as the endangered Palma Estera -Astrocaryum malibo-, whose leaves have been ancestrally transformed into gorgeous mats that are highly valued in Colombian artisanal markets. People’s survival and traditional knowledge and uses of biodiversity are also at stake. Can we imagine in this new country multi-stakeholder dialogues where cattle ranchers, fiber collectors, meat consumers, researchers and the Colombian State build peace together by talking biodiversity? Can we restore this landscape and benefit from improved nature and social connectivity?

The Colombian Caribbean is also home to the Oil Palm, an introduced species mostly cultivated on large scale, and highly dependent on ecosystem services such as water. This agro-industry was mentioned at the Seminar in Paris by Brigitte Baptiste, general Director at Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute in Colombia, as one of the most willing to change and adapt their practices towards more sustainable ones. Therefore, an innovative research project is currently in place showing that biodiversity can prosper in well designed plantations, and that these plantations benefit in turn from allowing room for biodiversity as it enhances fertility and soil irrigation, lowering management costs in around 10%. And thanks to the international certification scheme of the RSPO -Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil-, this industry could also access markets such as the European Union by lowering their environmental impacts. In addition, alliances between large and small oil palm growers are also taking place, facilitating market access to the latter ones and proving of stakeholder involvement. Power balance and environmental accountability should of course be verified in these alliances, but they can for sure be considered as a starting point for participatory development and good governance.

Landscape restoration in Colombia has the potential to be a major unifying theme and a job creation opportunity in post-conflict Colombia, that would help to advance peace-building and regional development. It would also contribute to achieve the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals both by avoiding deforestation and actively reforesting. I presented here some of my knowledge on the Caribbean case but, as the Colombian Network of Ecological Restoration (REDCRE) has clearly stated, there are bright prospects of transdisciplinary and public-private collaborations all over the country.

Our aim with the Seminar Peace and Biodiversity in Colombia in Paris was to foster collaborations from abroad and to keep raising awareness on this topic as, using the words given at the opening speech by The Ambassador of France in Colombia, Mr Gautier Mignot, “Colombia has today the exceptional opportunity to invent an original development model, respectful of nature and humans, inside post-conflict territories”

To know more: Aguilar et al., 2015. Toward a post-conflict Colombia: restoring to the future. Restoration Ecology 23. Ortiz, J., 2016. Paisaje palmero biodiverso: conservación de la biodiversidad en zonas de cultivo de palma de aceite en Colombia. Palmas, 37.

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